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Bodies, Remedies, Policies: From Early Modern Chronicles of the Indies to Covid-19 Narratives

Early Modern expansionism and its aftermaths constitute a biopolitical laboratory, measuring, administering, and controlling social and individual bodies, their well-being and decay (Jáuregui/Solodkow 2020, Foucault 1976).

Bodies, Remedies, Policies: From Early Modern Chronicles of the Indies to Covid-19 Narrative

Interdisciplinary Conference

The power over life and death defines healthy bodies and adequate remedies through policies determining that which is diseased – the origin, development, and outcome of illness (Esposito 2011). When in 1562 smallpox arrived with a European slave ship from Africa to Salvador de Bahia, causing contagion of pandemic proportions, Jesuit friars blamed local beliefs and shamanism to be the root cause and reinforced missionary work as only possible treatment. José de Acosta describes the pustules on skin, tongue, and mouth, inhibiting confession, and Leonardo do Vale reports that the ones most affected were the native slaves, living in squalid conditions, and among them, especially pregnant women, and elders – demonstrating the intimate link between pathology and race, gender, social belonging (“class”), or age. Colonial slavery, a form of biopolitical experimentation (Mbembe 2003), disproportionally raised the rates of indigenous infection, which reciprocally fostered massive slave trade with Africa (Alden/Miller 1987).

The colonial enterprise soon contributed to the shifts in Early Modern medical-political thinking and fed into the common metaphor of the state as a body, based on the ancient idea of order as the correct functioning of all (anatomic) parts. Publications like Girolamo Frascatoro’s De Contagione et Contagiosos Morbis (1545) – abandoning Galen’s humoral theory (internal fluids causing malaise) and introducing the comprehension of external (“viral”) forces affecting bodies – coincided with European empires’ “obsession with self-protection” nudged by actual invasions, as the Spanish or Portuguese in America, and their contact with unfamiliar cultures (Esposito 2011). At the same time, international popular bestsellers stimulated transcontinental transfers of body knowledge and treatments: Nicolas Monardes’ Historia medicinal de las cosas que se traen de nuestras Indias Occidentales (1565), nurtured by objects and information collected first-hand in the port of Seville, promoted sassafras, canafístula, or carlo sancto as New World’s wonder remedies for ailments. In Mexico, the bilingual Codex Florentinus was compiled between two infectious plagues of 1545 and 1576. Reclusive in isolation, Bernardino de Sahagún compares the role of Franciscan preachers to medical experts in body humors and sees them, and himself, as “healers of illnesses of the soul,” connecting body, spirit, and affect. While defending official church policies, the Codex Florentinus also inserts a counter-narrative, meticulously recording Aztec medical procedures and the work of Nahua doctors dealing with “los miembros de todo el cuerpo interiores y esteriores y de las enfermedades y medicinas contrarias [desta gente indiana]” [“the interior and exterior body members and illnesses and medicines for remedy of these Indian people”] (Sahagún 1996). Moreover, Sahagún’s team of tlacuilos, Mexica scribes and painters, underlines Nahua agencies in matters of health and informs about their wisdom regarding cocolotzli, a term insufficiently translated as “illness,” for it also designates the social effects of disease for the altepetl, the entire community (Dufendach 2017).

Five centuries after conquest, biopolitical theory still reads pathology as coloniality – as marked by the long shadows of colonialism (Quijano 2014) –, explaining the virus as the dangerous “other,” the Western medical inversion of the (post-)colonized body as invader and source of infection, and the construction of (formerly) colonized spaces as contagious and disposable (Haraway 1989, Mbembe 2000, 2003). In 2020, while the Corona crisis produces new “untouchable” bodies (Preciado 2020), Puerto Rican writer Mayra Santos-Febres sounds out the words “No puedo respirar” [“I can’t breath”] in relation to Covid-19. The expression, at least since George Floyd’s affixation a synonym of racial murder, denounces the accentuated vulnerability of the (post-)colonial body in today’s pandemic, connecting to a current trend that asks how Covid-19 generated a distinction “between grievable and ungrievable lives” as “some human creatures assert their rights to live at the expense of others” (Butler 2020, n. p.). Questioning contagion’s power over life (biopolitics) and fabrication of death (necropolitics), this line of thought associates exclusions of underprivileged sectors from medical benefits, racism towards ethnic minorities, neglect of migrant workers, ideas to test vaccines on Non-Western people, and increased exploitation of commodities with the colonial past (Caponi 2021, Pereira Campos dos Santos et. al. 2020, Silva 2020). For instance, when in 2020 native groups seeked protection from Covid-19 in the Brazilian Amazon, where hospitals are far, their displacement weakened the resistance against illegal deforestation and mining activities, which, compared to 2019, doubled in the first months of Corona. Government responded by replaying those early colonial models which handled fatally spreading disease by inventing more efficient modes of extraction of raw materials and life force, and activists and politicians like Manaus’ mayor feared a native “genocide,” rehearsing the long-accepted, yet contested discourse of colonial disease – the extinction of entire populations through imported germs which supposedly enabled sixteenth century Spanish and Portuguese military success (Crosby 2015, Brooks 2003).

Building on such debates, this International Conference investigates the production of pathology and healing since Early Modern colonialism and until current contexts of coloniality, identifying, in particular, three fields of research which may be dealt with separately or in their intersections:

1) Bodies, that is, individual and collective anatomies, social and anatomical figures, human, animalistic or other physical forms, configurations of the flesh, living or dead; the significance and space they are given and the sensations and affects they (are allowed to) experience in the mapping of immune systems; as well as corporeal practices, performances, and discourses creating an infectious, delicate, palliative, or robust biosphere.

2) Remedies, the preventive or reactive substances, objects and knowledges proposed, imagined, or invented for malady and well-being, may they be physical, psychosomatic, spiritual, technological, material or immaterial; their properties and characteristics; the way they are composed – collected, extracted, brewed, or fusioned –, consumed and applied; the power they exercise; and the strategies intended to create (or disturb) impermeability, immunity, and safety. Besides, the conference considers the multifaceted pharmakon which is “itself to the extent it is other,” combining both “poison and cure” (Esposito 2011: 127).

3) Policies, the imperial decisions, governmental laws, political programs, aesthetic interventions, or moral instructions regulating life and death, disciplining human thriving and suffering, and institutionalizing or inhibiting treatments – the biopower „[qui] s’articul[e] directement sur le corps, sur des corps, des fonctions, des processus physiologiques, des sensations, des plaisirs“ [“directly articulated over the body, over bodies, their functions, physiological processes, sensations, pleasures”] (Foucault 1976: 200).

The investigations may be guided by, but are not limited to the following questions:

– Which narratives position (post-)colonized bodies between well-being and pathology?
– How do policies of race, class, or gender operate on ill bodies?
– Which agencies respond to the imperial imposition of pestilence and medical substances, as well as to the erasure of local health practices?
– How have groups been tasked with designing forms of immunity?
– How are life and death being granted or refused during health crises?

Keynote Speakers:

– Prof. Dr. Carlos Jáuregui (University of Notre Dame)
– Prof. Dr. David Solodkow (Universidad de los Andes)

The International Conference links different disciplines and takes place from February 15–17, 2023, at the Goethe-University Frankfurt am Main. Please send your abstract (250–300 words) until December 4, 2022, and any questions to Romana Radlwimmer: radlwimmer@em.uni-frankfurt.de.


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